Automating Manual Processes to Gain Productivity In Chinese Factories

    Manufacturing wages are increasing in China and all over low-cost Asian countries. And, at the same time, the new generation tends to prefer working in the service sector. It means automating manual processes is an imperative for factories.

    There are basically three approaches. They should come into play at different stages of maturity:


    1. No automation

    In the typical Chinese factory, raising labor productivity by 30% without investing anything substantial is quite realistic. For example, purchasing a roller table (as you see every time you go through airport security), a few small tables, and a whiteboard is often all we ask our clients when we re-engineer an assembly operation.

    Staff engagement, coupled with the right training programs, can also help a lot. The operators know what issues slow them down, and fixing those issues is often free.

    2. Low-tech, simple, inexpensive automation

    Once the low-hanging fruits have been grabbed, it usually makes sense to invest modestly in low-tech automation.

    For example, adding automatic unloading to an injection press can allow an operator to tend to 2 or 3 presses simultaneously, rather than 1. This is semi-automation and it can be powerful!

    Similarly, quality controllers could be given a tablet on which they can input their findings, rather than writing them on paper and later returning to their office for input in Excel.

    3. High-tech, complex, expensive automation

    So you have used your staff’s brains and you seized many opportunities for higher efficiency. Very nice job. You make your calculations and it makes sense to purchase and install that fully-automated piece of equipment. You visit another factory where it is in place, to know about its downsides. You estimate that you have gradually trained a few engineers, through semi-automation efforts, to understand and maintain automated equipment. This is the right thing to do if you can pay for it!

    In the office, the equivalent of automating manual processes is to install an ERP, but only after processes were documented, base data were cleaned up, and the workflow was streamlined.


    Is this consistent with what you have seen? Do Chinese manufacturers tend to “jump” to full automation without mastering the skills that are necessary? In that case, what do they struggle with the most?

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